What makes a sound recording legitimate art? What noises constitute music? While the means of recording have now reached the point of accessibility for nearly everyone in the 100 years since the first wax platter, the questions above still defy a singular answer. Using the esteemed Anthology of American Folk Music as a guide, Musics in the Margin, a 25-track, but by no means exhaustive compilation, is a scholarly attempt to study “music” that falls well outside the borders of genre or style. It captures the disparate voices and sounds of those whose art defies categorization yet is undeniably braced with conviction, honesty and at times, brilliance.
Musics in the Margin is a difficult CD to review insofar as the music can’t be graded as either “good” or “bad”. The music within exists in a sphere outside what most readers of this site—or frankly any music magazine online or otherwise—are used to and to reduce the sounds within to a subjective grade would simply go against the very purpose of the disc. I can only imagine the difficulty the compilers faced in choosing the pieces to appear here. The only two names that will be recognizable to cult music fans are Wesley Willis (five songs) and Daniel Johnston (two songs). I mention the song count, because I wish on this 25-track disc, that a third wasn’t dedicated to artists who music is widely available elsewhere. I understand the need to provide context, but I feel seven songs by those who don’t have access to wide distribution will have served the purpose of the disc even better. But that being said, the remainder of the disc provide some haunting, eccentric and puzzling works.
The most striking thing about this collection is how singular the works of each artist truly are. From inventors to the mentally disabled, these artists perform out of a similar need to soldier through their existence. Their works provide comfort—the comfort of scientific belief or even the sustenance to get through the day. From the eerie static recordings of Dr. Konstantine Raudive, a pioneer of Electronic Voice Phenomenon, which claims to capture to the voices of the dead (recently popularized in the film White Noise) to the solemn spirituals of the institutionalized Marcella Dumarey (who claimed to have a vision of the Virgin Mary at the age of seven), it is tremendous the power these recordings carry.
I suppose it’s not surprising to mention that Musics in the Margin is really only for the most adventurous of listeners. And even then, there is only so much “amateur” percussion, sound waves and singing a person can take. The best bet for listeners approaching the disc is to dive in one artist at a time, reading the bio in the extensive liner notes as a starting point for the aural experience. Is it music? Is it art? I still don’t know. What I do know, is that for a brief moment I experienced a world of sound from a extraordinarly unique group of people. And on that level alone, I would recommend Musics in the Margin for anyone who truly wants to discover just how far the limits and definitions of sound and art can be stretched.